How much do you know about the love hormone and how it affects addiction?
Earlier this year, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina found that oxytocin affects how people experience cravings and addiction.
Specifically, the study looked at oxytocin and its effects on cocaine cravings in men and women with histories of childhood trauma.
Up to 70% of people with substance use disorders (SUDs) have histories of childhood trauma. Yet most addiction studies don’t look at that trauma or the gender-based differences that it produces.
Oxytocin and Addiction
Oxytocin is a hormone that your body produces when you fall in love, have sex, or bond with a new baby. The hormone can produce strong feelings of love, empathy, and social connection.
It makes sense that the love chemical would have a powerful impact on how your body responds to drugs, and that’s what the researchers predicted.
What they didn’t predict was a vast difference in oxytocin’s effects between men and women.
The study had a group of 67 men and women view images of drugs and drug-related items while an MRI measured the response in the amygdala, a brain region that’s involved in addiction.
All of the participants had a history of childhood trauma. They also all reported a history of cocaine addiction.
Then, each person underwent treatment with oxytocin or a placebo, and they underwent the test in the MRI again.
How Does Oxytocin Affect Addiction in Men?
Before the treatment, men had a high level of amygdala activity when viewing triggering images. Men who received oxytocin had less activation in the amygdala after the treatment.
This aligns with the researcher’s predictions.
The men didn’t self-report their cravings, but low activation correlates with fewer cravings. The men probably experienced cravings during the first MRI, but fewer cravings after the treatment.
How Does Oxytocin Affect Addiction in Women?
Interestingly, women had almost no activation in their amygdala when they viewed visual triggers before the MRI. After the treatment and the second MRI, women experienced more activation and presumably more cravings.
The researchers didn’t expect these results. They presumed that men and women would both experience fewer cravings after taking oxytocin and more cravings before.
It’s uncertain why there’s such a big difference in the way women and men experience oxytocin and cravings, but there are a few possible answers.
Why Does Oxytocin Work Differently in Men vs Women With Addiction?
It’s hard to tell for sure why the researchers saw such different results in men and women. The researchers had a few possible explanations for their findings:
- Women are less sensitive to visual cues than men: Some women don’t respond to images of drugs and drug paraphernalia the way they would respond to other signals, like stress related to their trauma.
- Women might have a blunted amygdala response that is a result of trauma-induced hyper-reactivity. After a trauma, this type of reaction can cause desensitization to future triggering stimuli. Women are more prone to it than men are.
- Women use more oxytocin than men: The female hormone system uses oxytocin for childbirth, breastfeeding, and pair bonding, so women may have a lower threshold than men.
- Women are more sensitive to cocaine than men: Women have a higher level of the sex hormone estradiol than men. This hormone increases the effects of cocaine on women and lowers the craving threshold.
It’s even possible that the difference has something to do with how women and men experience trauma.
All of the men and women in this study had a history of trauma. Childhood trauma can cause neurochemical changes that last into adulthood. That’s why so many men and women with SUD have a trauma history, as well.
Even though researchers have some ideas, it’s impossible to say for sure. Future research needs to look at why women have different physical responses to the same drug-related triggers.
Could This Research Affect Future Cocaine Addiction Treatment?
It’s unlikely that oxytocin will become an FDA-approved treatment for cocaine addiction anytime soon. It’s not effective in women, and it takes years to get a medication FDA-approved.
Still, the findings of the research are important in helping men and women recover from cocaine addiction. And in the future, oxytocin could become a treatment for some male candidates.
Women have worse recovery rates from cocaine addiction than men. Up until now, it’s been uncertain why, and without that information, it’s hard to tackle the relapse rate in women.
Now we know that with a history of trauma:
- Oxytocin affects how you experience cravings
- Oxytocin affects you differently according to your sex
Researchers can use this knowledge to inform future treatment research.
Historically, most medications are tested on men, and their effects on women may be unclear for years. Research like this makes it clear that men and women have bodies that respond differently to addiction and hormones.
The result is that eventually, women can better access treatment that works for them.
At the same time, research on sex-based differences helps medicine understand how men and women are both affected by addiction. The result can only be better treatment and better outcomes.
- Chemicals between us: Surprising effects of oxytocin on cocaine addiction
- Breaking the loop: Oxytocin as a potential treatment for drug addiction
- Targeting the Oxytocin System to Treat Addictive Disorders: Rationale and Progress to Date
- Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Post traumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population
- Why Females Are More Sensitive to Cocaine